Do Writers Need Presentation Skills?

Holy crap!

Welcome to Techie Tuesday here at More Cowbell! We’ve talked about lots of different software/computer-y/techie sorts of things in our time together. Everything from Twitter to LinkedIn, from Word to Excel. Y’all are becoming regular technical gurus over here and it makes my trainer’s heart sing the Hallelujah chorus. Seriously.

One program/skillset that’s been absent from our lineup is the Art of the Presentation. In today’s business environment, that will usually be PowerPoint on the PC or Keynote on the Mac.

It’s probably safe to assume that someday all of us want to be the next Big Name (sub in whoever that means to you). The person who presents at a Chapter meeting, a conference, or the Big Kahuna who wows the crowd at Thrillerfest or RWA.

We might wow a big crowd just by speaking and being ourselves. Because…we just naturally rock! Even though public speaking is the most well documented phobia there is. Yeah, that’s how it happens…just stand up, start talking and wow that room full of strangers.

You go with your bad Big Kahuna self…

I’m going to let you in on a not-so-big secret.  That isn’t how it happens for most people.

Nope, most people are more like little ol’ professional trainer me who threw up before her first TEN classes. Most people are more like the guy who clings for dear life to the podium so his voice isn’t so shaky. Or the well-meaning presenter who darts like an angelfish from one side of the room to the other, hoping to outrun the I-HATE-PUBLIC-SPEAKING nerves.

That’s how most people feel when they get up in front of a room full of strangers. 90% of them are wishing for a bottle of Xanax and a dirty martini. I know, because I was one of them and I still have moments like that after 15 years of presenting. Every new room, with its big daunting podium, makes me blank out for a few moments.

It’s the practice and the training that help get you through it. And the people. Like writing, presenting is always about the audience.

Below are some tips to help you when it’s your turn at bat. Because a big part of being Nora Roberts and James Patterson and Ken Follett is speaking to the people who wish they were Nora or James or Ken. Its nice to learn these things while you’re still the little guy and you have a shorter distance to fall.

 

Tips for Effective Presentations

Below are some tips to keep on hand as you begin to prepare your own presentations.

General Presentation

  • Check the spelling and grammar on every slide. Then check it again.
  • Do not READ the presentation. Practice the presentation so you can speak from bullet points. The text should be a cue for the presenter rather than a message for the viewer.
  • If the content is complex, print out the slides so the audience can take notes.
  • Do not turn your back on the audience. If using a computer, try to position the monitor so you can speak while facing it.
  • Give a brief overview at the start. Then present the information. Finally review important points.

Special Effects

  • If sound effects are used in your presentation, wait until the sound has finished before you speak. If possible, pause for just a beat.
  • It is often more effective to have bulleted points appear one at a time so the audience listens to the presenter rather than reading the screen.
  • Use a wireless mouse or pick up the wired mouse so you can move around as you speak. A moving target (within reason – think about the angelfish analogy) helps to keep the audience’s attention.

Color

  • Limit the number of colors on a single screen (no more than 3-4/pg).
  • Bright colors make small objects and thin lines stand out. However, some vibrant colors are difficult to read when projected. (Think of orange and red side-by-side in a pie chart. Ick.)
  • Use no more than four colors per chart, if at all possible.
  • Check all colors on a projection screen before the actual presentation. They may project differently on different projectors and VERY differently than on your computer.

Fonts

  • Select sans-serif fonts such as Arial or Helvetica. Avoid serif fonts such as Times New Roman or Palatino as they are sometimes more difficult to read.
  • Use no font size smaller than 24 point in a large conference room.
  • Clearly label each slide. Use a larger font (35-45 points) or different color for the title.
  • Use a single sans-serif font for most of the presentation. Different colors, sizes and styles (bold, underline) are used sparingly to add impact.
  • Avoid italicized fonts as they are difficult to read quickly.
  • Use dark text on light background or light text on dark background. However, dark backgrounds sometimes make it difficult for some people to read the text.
  • Do not use all caps except for titles.
  • Try to shoot for no more than 6-8 words per line. 
  • For bullet points, use the 6 x 6 Rule. One thought per line with no more than 6 words per line and no more than 6 lines per slide. Trust me on this one.

To test the font: Stand six feet back from the monitor and see if you can read the slide.

Graphics and Design (many points here…sorry)

  • Keep the background consistent and subtle.
  • When using charts or graphs, use only enough text to explain the graphic clearly.
  • Keep the design clean and uncluttered.
  • Leave empty space around the text and graphics.
  • Use quality clipart and use it sparingly. The graphic should relate to and enhance the topic of the slide.
  • Try to use the same style graphics throughout the presentation (e.g. cartoon, photographs)
  • Limit the number of graphics on each slide.
  • Check all graphics on a projection screen before the actual presentation
  • Avoid flashy graphics and noisy animation effects unless they relate directly to the slide. Massive animation = Death By PowerPoint (or Keynote)
  • Limit the types of transitions used (def: how a slide or bullet appears). It is often better to use only one kind so the audience knows what to expect.

What is your experience with public speaking? Is it easy or hard for you? Are there tips that help you get through it? What is your biggest phobia? (Mine is heights…long story). Do you use presentation software like Keynote or PowerPoint? Is the program giving you trouble? (Do tell…)

I look forward to hearing from you on this fine Techie Tuesday!
Jenny

About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm (http://writersinthestormblog.com). Write on!
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36 Responses to Do Writers Need Presentation Skills?

  1. Sherry Isaac says:

    Great tips, Jenny. I spent a year building up the Prana Presents Prose and Poetry Readings with owner/author Brandon Pitts in Toronto’s trendy beach area, and one element of the author’s life many new writers are reluctant to develop is reading their work to an audience, which is a presentation.
    So glad you nailed rehearsing. A reading shouldn’t feel like reading, but storytelling. And be careful not to ramble. Brief overviews should be brief!

    Like

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Sherry,

      All my presentations are of material and lectures, not my writing. The idea of sitting in front of a crowd and reading my writing gives me the dry heaves. Not that I couldn’t fake it till I make it….but the thought gives me the willies.🙂

      Like

  2. Linda Burke says:

    I prefer to limit the powerpoint bullets to one or three words because the speaker should be talking about that bullet, not reading it with no extra explanations. If it is all on the bulleted list, then why would I need to say anything. People can read much faster than I can talk and if I (as the speaker) am just reading it, then they are bored. How many presentations have you seen where the speaker is reading the powerpoint presentation? Ugh.

    I was very afraid when I first started speaking but after a while, the nervousness translated into anticipation. What would I learn from comments or questions during the presentation? Since I haven’t had to make presentations in several years, I’m sure I would be very nervous if I had to do it again.

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    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Excellent points, Linda! Business people can rarely get away with a single word bullet, but I’ll bet a writer could. It sounds like you were a fantastic presenter.

      Like

  3. K.B. Owen says:

    Even with more than a decade as a college prof, getting up in front of that first class (and sometimes second, third…) of the semester was a dry mouth/sweaty hands/butterflies in the stomach kind of experience. And I really enjoyed teaching, and my students were wonderful. Glad I’m not the only one, Jenny!

    P.S. – I LOVE powerpoint! I even use it for my photo album pages.

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    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Ooooo, Kathy…I’ll bet your photo albums are gorgeous (and not at all like the boxes of pictures I still have to go through).

      Yep, that dry mouth/sweaty hands description is dead-on accurate when it comes to the speaking nerves. As you could tell from my comment to Sherry, I’m a huge fan of “fake it till you make it.” With some practice thrown in, it does the trick every time.

      Like

  4. Stacy Green says:

    I love your Techie Tuesday posts. I always learn so much. I haven’t spoken publicly in years, but I hope I’m asked to some day. My best friend does a lot of education training, so I’ve learned a lot from her, but I love seeing the individual components listed like this. Thanks, Jenny!

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  5. amyshojai says:

    GREAT post, I am so sharing this.
    I have a theater background but ALWAYS get butterflies. The few times that I haven’t had a few nerves, the presentation didn’t go well so I’m a bit superstitious that way. The key I’ve found is practice–practice until you can do it in your sleep. I do lots of TV and radio, used to a lot more public speaking during my spokesperson work, but there’s always angst.

    I love powerpoint. but as others have said, it’s a tool–not a replacement for the presenter’s info.

    Like

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      God, don’t you HATE it when things don’t go well. I’m with you on the nerves – they push you to do your best.

      I had no idea you had a theater background – that explains that fantastic well-modulated voice of yours. As a trainer, I’d LOVE to have your voice!

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  6. Excellent tips! I do have that stage-fright thing. These should come in handy when I’m a mega-bestseller.😉

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  7. Ditto on what Amy and Jenny said about nerves. They push you to better prepare. GREAT advice on presentation aids, Jenny. I have some history in corporate training and never, EVER got over the pre-presentation jitters. Well, except for “after banquent presentations,” but that’s a “whole other kettle of wine” story. When I trained trainers, my advice was to OWN the first 5 minutes. To practice it, pace it, and practice some more. To decide at what point they would be past their nerves. It worked for me. I’d hit that point and think “phew.” HATED short presentations. (SHUT UP! Jenny & Sherry). They didn’t give me a chance to settle into a rhythm.

    Right there with you, Jenny, on heebie-jeebies when reading my WIP. I SPEED READ through it–like Robin Williams impromptu. Only his brain keeps up with his mouth. Mine doesn’t. Sherry gave me GREAT tips on marking the excerpt and practicing for readings. You should hear Sherry. Lyrical with pauses at just the right spots. AWESOME topic and pointers. More COWBELL wisdom. I never get tired of it.

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    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks, Gloria! (You know I love your comments :-)) I can see you being a great trainer.

      I have never tried reading my WIP in front of a crowd. Closest I ever came was delivering my mother-in-law’s eulogy to 80 close friends and family. THAT was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

      Like

  8. I had to use overhead projectors for years in my business because I couldn’t afford the hardware to project from computer screen to big screen. That was like taking the stagecoach instead of a plane. Good presentation here, Jenny.

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  9. I’m not too fond of presentations because I have panic attacks. My chest feels like I have a ton sitting on it and I can barely breathe. It lasts the first ten or fifteen minutes of the presentation before it passes then I can breathe close to normal. It’s pretty awful. There doesn’t seem to be much I can do about it except get through it.

    I’d much rather watch someone else give a presentation especially one done well.🙂

    Like

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      OMG, Angela! Panic attacks are wicked scary. I’m so sorry you have those.

      Your comment did give me impetus for a follow-up blog on this; thank you for sharing.🙂

      Like

  10. Public speaking is an absolute must for writers – how else are you going to sell your book?

    I may turn a shade of red when I first step in front of a group, but then my social skills kick in and I turn into a chatty-Kathy. But in a good way. I have a VERY loud voice too, sometimes I don’t even need a microphone.🙂

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    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I so wish I was louder. Whenever I teach at a hotel, I have to ask for a microphone or I lose my voice from the strain. It’s just not my gift.

      I can WELL imagine you being a powerhouse presenter, Tiff!

      Like

  11. jessicaaspen says:

    With the growth of the internet and e-publishing and the shrinking of the physical bookstores our opportunities as writers to speak to small groups is shrinking. Pretty soon it will be large groups or nothing! And then watch out newbie authors! I have yet to take advantage of the small group opps for practice. I guess I should at some time get out there and speak. Thanks for all the great ideas and suggestions. Now I just have to think of a topic!

    Like

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Jessica,

      I’ve presented a few times at my local writing chapter (usually 80-100 people) and it’s usually a great opportunity to hone your presenting skills amongst friends. Being the reader at church is another one that comes to mind.

      I will say that the first time I spoke at a chapter meeting, the paramedics showed up mid-talk. Sounds like something I need to blog about. Hmmmm….

      Like

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  14. Hi Jenny and bloggers–

    Great topic and some wonderful responses!

    I was at lunch today with one of my fiction-writing students and he asked me how long I’ve been teaching writing. It added up to about 18 years. That’s no guarantee of jitters-free presentations, though.

    Recent example: Last month at RWA I had to get to the podium and make an announcement about my fall UCI course “Beginning Your Novel or Short Story.” My voice shook! You could have poked me and I’d have fallen over. Me, nervous at an RWA podium, having served as president for a couple of years and on the board for longer? Yup. My service was years ago, and I hadn’t been to regular meetings for a good long while.

    So I guess for me, Jenny, it’s a case of new faces. I get the same nerves at the start of the first class of each series of UCI courses I teach, and at the OCC courses in composition, too. Since I’ll be leading a short story workshop for OCC/RWA in September and a Plotting in Pajamas workshop at the organization’s 30th Year Birthday Bash in October, I get to experience the jitters again very soon. Oh fun. However, I can rely on the familiar material and the feeling inside me that I want to give something of value to writers, so the nerves will settle as I get into my subject. At least–that’s the game plan. One can hope!🙂

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  16. Public speaking is hard but it’s something I get used to. Before, I used to freeze up. My mind would go totally blank figuring out what to say. Now, I think that they’re all cheering for me. That somehow helps me give a better public speech.🙂

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    • Jenny Hansen says:

      That picture in the mind of cheering crowds is a great one, Marilag! Good for you. I don’t know how a nervous speaker is going to fix that image in their minds, but I’m gonna do some research on that.🙂

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  21. Laurie Smale says:

    Hi Jenny

    Obviously you are not aware that the public speaking with confidence signpost cartoon you have displayed on your Jenny Hanson Cowbell blog is subject to copyright. It comes up as the little guy whistling as he walks past the public speaking signpost and is connected to your site when one goes into ‘public speaking cartoons’ via Google. I own the copyright and hold the original. It was expressly commissioned by me from cartoonist Nick Bland for my website http://www.panicfreepublicspeaking.com.au and book, “How to take the Panic out of Public Speaking”. In fact you’ll find a series of this stripe-suited cartoon character on this site with my credit at the bottom of each one.

    You may continue to use this cartoon on condition you credit its source in small print as appears in above website. Otherwise kindly remove it.

    Thanking you in anticipation

    Like

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      You are exactly right that I did not know that this was a copyrighted picture. If you look at today’s post, you’ll see that many of us bloggers just got a heads up about the rules and I am about to take all my pictures down and substitute them for open domain or copyright approved photos.

      I’m so delighted that you ended up here today and gave me the correct information for attribution. I was happy to have the opportunity to display it in the caption for the photo. I’d prefer you get credit to just taking down the picture.

      Thank you for allowing me to use it – I hope you sell many, many copies of your book as a result!

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  22. K.B. Owen says:

    Nicely done, Laurie and Jenny! That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Laurie, thanks for being so gracious! It can be near-impossible to track down copyright ownership, especially if it’s commissioned work. I’m curious about your site and will be checking it out!😀

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